Africa's Indigenous Clans

The Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania

Population: +/-840 000

Savannahs, lions, safari vehicles, and a red-robed Maasai, standing elegant and slender against the infinite horizon…

The red-clad Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania is synonymous with the Great Plains and savannahs of Africa. They are renowned warriors and pastoralists who for hundreds of years roamed the wild of East Africa.

Vince SmithMaasai driving cattle into the ngorongoro crater by Vince Smith

Maasinta, the first Maasai, received a gift of cattle from Ngai – the sky god - who lowered them to earth on a leather thong. Since that time, cattle have been viewed as sacred and their value is rivaled only by the value of their children, indeed, a large herd and a large family are the marks of a truly successful Maasai.

The savannah land that makes up the famous parks of Ngorongoro, Amboseli, Serengeti, the Masai Mara, and Tsavo was all once the nomadic range of the Maasai people.

Despite the pressures of the modern world, the Maasai have fought to preserve their way of life and as a result, any east African safari is awash with the sight of colorful Maasai, herding their cattle, walking along roads, or dancing the adumu. 

Michaei HerreraFamous Masai Mara in Kenya by Michaei Herrera

Amongst the most famous Maasai traditions are the jumping dance, the wearing of colorful shuka, spitting, and the drinking of blood.

The Adamu is the jumping dance that is performed as part of the initiation right when young adults become men. Accompanied by song, pairs of men take turns to see who can jump the highest.

The ritual is performed to show prowess and fitness and it forms a part of the celebration when the boys become eligible bachelors. He who jumps the highest attracts the best bride.

MichaelThe famous maasai jumping dance 'adumu' by Michael

The vibrant colored cloth worn by the Maasai is known as shuka. Red is considered to be a sacred color and represents blood and is the basic color for all shuka.

In addition to these qualities, it also protects the Maasai from wild animals.

Orange is for hospitality, warmth, and friendship, blue is for the sky which provides the rains for the cattle. Green is nourishment and production and yellow is for fertility and growth.

Together, these vibrant African clothes, are what make the Maasai so distinctive in East Africa. 

While in western traditions saliva is a strictly private and personal matter, in Maasai culture and tradition it is considered extremely good luck to be shared. When shaking the hand of an elder, it is important to spit in one's palm, and to ward off evil spirits, one must spit onto a new-born baby's head. Spitting is one thing, drinking blood completely another.

NinaraMaasai Kenya culture by Ninara

That’s right, the Maasai are hematophagous, meaning that they drink blood for nourishment.

It is curious because while they drink cow’s blood, often mixed with milk, they are opposed to eating wild animals, and the consumption of beef is reserved for special occasions only.

The Maasai revere their cattle and for this reason, the letting of blood causes no lasting harm to their bovine companions.

Meet the Maasai Tribes of East Africa in Kenya and Tanzania...

James WhatleyHimba culture in Namibia by James Whatley

The Himba of northwest Namibia

Population: +/- 50 000

The desolate Kunene region of northwest Namibia is home to a resilient people called the Himba. Hunter-gatherers and pastoralists, the Himba descend from the southward migrating Herero of Angola.

Marc VeraartUnforgiving namibia home of the himba by Marc Veraart

Life for the Himba revolves around the holy fire called Okuruwo. Okuruwo, via the smoke,  symbolizes a connection with their ancestors, who are in direct communication with their God Mukuru.

The fire burns at the center of the village and is never allowed to go out and each family has a fire-keeper whose job it is to tend the sacred blaze.

Michael HaebnerHimba children with traditional hairstyles by Michael Haebner

The Himba are a nomadic African tribe and traditionally travel from waterhole to waterhole tending their cattle and goats.

Day-to-day tasks are traditionally split between the sexes with the women doing the hard tasks of carrying water, milking cows, building homes, and raising children while the men handle politics and tend livestock.

This division even extends to the use of water for bathing which is reserved exclusively for men. Women use herb-smoke from fire to cleanse their pores and maintain personal hygiene.

Michael HaebnerHimba tribe hairstyling by Michael Haebner

Interestingly, the traditional clan structure of the Himba is bilateral – evident in only a handful of traditional peoples around the world.

Bilateral descent means that every clan member belongs to two clans, that of the mother, and that of the father. Under this unique arrangement, the sons live with the father’s clan as do the wives, however, inheritance passes from the maternal uncle.

Living in such a harsh environment, it is believed that this bilateral descent provides a better chance of survival.

Joanne GoldbyTraditional Himba hairstyle by Joanne Goldby

The most distinctive characteristic of the Himba is its unique adornment. The distinctive red ochre body paint and elaborate hairstyles have become synonymous with any safari to the Kunene region of Namibia.

Hairstyles signify status, age, and social standing.

From young children with clean-shaven heads to braids and plaits facing forwards and backward and finally, to the Erembe – a sheepskin leather ornament – worn by women who have had children, the often red-ochred hairstyles are both otherworldly and gorgeous.

David SiuHimba African tribe in Namibia by David Siu

The red ochre body paint of the Himba – called otijze – is made from butter, animal fat, and a naturally occurring earth pigment that contains iron oxide.

The Himba women apply this mixture to their skin to protect them from the harsh sun and insect bites, lock in moisture, and to beautify themselves.

Because of the striking appearance that this red paste creates, the Himba tribe of Namibia has become known as the “Red People of Africa”.

Find the Himba fascinating?

You can meet these traditional people in Namibia and experience their vanishing way of life...

Tribal Zulu warriors

The Zulu of South Africa

Population: between 10 and 13 million

The Zulu people are the largest ethnic group in South Africa. They are descended from East African origins and over centuries, migrated south during what is called the great Bantu migration.

The Zulu rose into a formidable empire under the leadership of Shaka in the early 19th century. Under his leadership, the Zulu kingdom expanded and played an important role in the history of South Africa.

Over time, the Zulu developed a fearsome reputation that is still evident today.

retlaw snellacModern Zulu culture, Africa by retlaw snellac

The Zulus of today are modern and progressive. While traditional clothing is reserved for special occasions, the Zulu retain strong connections with their ancestral and historical roots.

As a people, the Zulu are said to be warm-hearted and hospitable and it is to them that we owe the concept of Ubuntu.

Ubuntu states that we are people, not because of our individuality, but by virtue of our connections to other people, thus underlying the importance of relationships.

Willem van ValkenburgZulu traditional African crafts by Willem van Valkenburg

The Zulu, while predominantly Christian, have retained the belief in their supreme being, Unkulunkulu, who is the creator of all life. While Unkulunkulu is remote and detached, all fortune, misfortune, good or bad luck is attributed to ancestral spirits or amadlozi.

Simply put, the ancestral spirits are the spirits of the dead, specifically, of people who were respected and successful in life.

By giving sacrifices to the ancestral spirits, the Zulu people seek to influence their lives on a day to day basis and all marriages or births are marked by sacrificial offerings.

Steve SlaterTraditional Zulu homestead in South Africa by Steve Slater

The Zulu are also renowned for their skilled craftsmanship from earthenware pottery to weaving but most notably their beadwork. Bright colored beads are woven into intricate patterns that are highly decorative but also functional.

The patterns and colors have meaning. 

For example, a triangle is the symbol used for a girl while an inverted triangle indicates a boy. Joined triangles tip-to-tip indicates a married man, while triangles joined base-to-base is a married woman.

Running queenZulu culture, Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa by Running queen

Each color comes replete with the duality of life and has both a negative and a positive connotation. For example, red is for love and passion but can also represent anger and heartache, similarly, blue is the color of faithfulness and request but also of hostility and dislike.

The symbolism is complex and unique while also being functional and beautiful. It is no wonder then that curio shops from airports to cultural villages and tourist attractions around the country are all stocked with Zulu beadwork curios.

Zulu traditional African beadwork

The Zulu nation is a proud one. They have opened cultural villages such as Shakaland in KwaZulu Natal, where you can experience their culture first hand. From traditional houses and dress to dancing, pottery, and beadwork, you can even help to brew traditional beer.

But don’t forget, the real Zulus are the ones you’ll meet at lodges, as guides, and on the South African streets.

Come, treat yourself to an invigorating cultural experience and visit the traditional Zulu people in South Africa... 

Karen CorbyTraditional San Bushman tribe member by Karen Corby

The Bushman, San or Khoisan, of Southern Africa

Population about 80000 between South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia

Mario MicklischSan bushman tribe of Africa by Mario Micklisch

Known as the first people of South Africa, the Khoisan are renowned for their close connection to nature, their nomadic lifestyle, and their language that comprises of clicking sounds.

Sadly, they are also synonymous with the plight of minorities in Southern Africa and have been variously hunted, exploited, and pushed off their land.

Today, the survival of the San and their way of life hangs precariously in the balance.

WycliffeSATraditional San bushman dwelling by WycliffeSA

Traditionally, the San people were hunter-gatherers who lived off the land, roaming vast tracts of bushveld all over southern Africa. For various reasons including mining, farming, and the creation of national parks, the Bushmen have been forced into ever smaller ranges.

Today, they are restricted to small clusters around the Makgadikgadi Pan.

JeppestownKgalagadi gemsbok by Jeppestown

The Bushmen were the great artists of southern Africa and their charming rock art – dating back thousands of years – can be found in caves and rock overhangs all over the country. The San used pigments made from mineral deposits, ochres, blood, and egg to fashion delightful imagery of humans and animals.

MikeTraditional Bushmen painting by Mike

For many years it was believed that the paintings were merely representations of everyday life, and it is from caves in the Drakensberg Mountains that we know the area was once home to leopard, eland, and elephant which are now extinct in the area.

However, modern theories attribute the paintings of this African tribe to a much more exciting idea. It is believed that the caves were sacred sights, a little bit like cathedrals, used by shamans as an interface with the spirit realm.

The depictions are both access points to these realms as well as records of the encounters. What anthropologists believe is that rock art is a pictorial representation of the famous trance dance.

Mario MicklischSan Bushmen tribe, Southern Africa by Mario Micklisch

The magical trance dance is integral to the customs and beliefs of the Bushman. Also known as the healing dance, this ritual brings together the entire community.

While the community members maintain rhythm through clapping and chanting, the healers and elders, who lead the ceremony, dance around the fire, stamping, clapping, and mimicking animals.

The exertion, accompanied by hyperventilation, induces a powerful trance-like state in which they can enter the spirit world. The dance has a number of functions from healing sickness to dispelling what they call “star-sickness” which causes ill-will, anger, arguments, and jealousy.

The San are a marginalized tribe. Few of these gentle African people live the way their ancestors did. Examples and remnants of San culture can still be found where they are intentionally being preserved and you can see ancient San rock art at numerous sites across Southern Africa. 

Meeting genuine San descendants is a rare cultural encounter worth traveling for, as is gazing upon their distinctive artworks. See for yourself...

South African TourismNdebele Traditional African dolls by South African Tourism

The Southern Ndebele tribe of South Africa

Population of about 1.1 million

The Southern Ndebele is widely distributed through the north-east provinces of South Africa; Mpumalanga, Gauteng, and Limpopo.

The Ndebele tribes are considered to be cousins of the Zulu and as such share linguistic similarities. The Ndebele are, however, unique in the expression of their culture and their beliefs.

SA TourismTraditional Ndebele women of South Africa by SA Tourism

In traditional Ndebele society, illness is believed to be caused by spells or curses. They are considered to be an external force inflicted on an individual.

The traditional healer or sangoma is required to do battle with these forces using medicines like herbs or by throwing of bones.

All izangoma (men and women) are able to commune with the ancestral spirits. However, it is their ability to defeat illness that defines their success or failure.

Both boys and girls go through initiation rites and initiation schools are held every four years. When Ndebele boys are about 18years old, they are grouped into a regiment or indanga.

The regiment is given a name that comes from a cycle of 15 or 13 names, depending on the tribe but the initiation rites – which include circumcision – are shrouded in mystery.

Ndebele African beadwork, South Africa

For their initiation rites, Ndebele girls must wear an array of colorful beaded hoops or izigolwan around their limbs, waist, and neck. They are kept in isolation and trained to become matriarchs and homemakers.

To celebrate their ‘coming out’, the izigolwan are traded for hard leather aprons called amaphephetu.

South African TourismNdebele tribal woman, South Africa by South African Tourism

To emphasize the importance of this occasion, relatives and friends gather during the initiation period. They take part in activities and celebrations that mark this important event which symbolizes the transition of a person from childhood to adulthood.

While the Ndebele traditions of shamanism and initiation are interesting, what really sets them apart is their unique artistic style.

Women are responsible for decorating the homestead and often the façade and sides of buildings are brightly painting with striking geometric patterns filled in with color.

encaSouth Africa traditional culture by enca

While traditional designs made use of earth-ochres and muted dyes, modern Ndebele designers use a much more vibrant and vivid palette.

The designs have become synonymous with South Africa and one artist, Esther Mhlangu, has gained international fame.

Her designs have appeared all around the world on the tails of jumbo jets to museums and private art collections. She even became, not only the first woman but also the first African to be asked to do the prestigious BMW art car’, thus putting her in the company of  Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Hockney!

Don't just read about rich African cultures - come and experience them on an easy, safe, and affordable safari tour! 

Samburu tribal dance, Kenya

The Samburu of Northern Kenya

Population about 160 000

The Samburu tribe from north-central Kenya are pastoralists from the great plains of the Samburu region. They are closely related to the Maasai people of Kenya and are said to have migrated south from the Nile region of North Africa.

The Samburu people speak a dialect of the Maa language which they share with the Maasai. The Samburu are however considered to be even more remote as the region that they inhabit is dry and arid and so can support less life.

Filiberto StrazzariSamburu tribe in Africa by Filiberto Strazzari

Pastoralists, the Samburu raise primarily cattle but also keep other livestock like goats, sheep, and even camels. Because of the arid environment that they inhabit, this African tribe is traditionally nomadic.

Constantly in search of pastures for their cattle, much of the conflict in their ever-shrinking range is caused by the search for land. The Samburu diet, like the Maasai, consists of milk and animal blood, while eating is reserved for special occasions.

NinaraColourful Samburu culture in Kenya by Ninara

The Samburu are renowned for their colorful clothing and their unique social structure. The men wear pink or black cloth in a manner similar to the Scottish kilt and adorn themselves with bracelets, anklets, and necklaces.

The warrior age-group or Moran is known to wear their hair in long braids. The women, on the other hand, keep their heads shaven and wear two cloths, one around the waist and the other around their chests.

The cloth is usually blue or purple and the women adorn themselves further by applying ochre to their bodies in a fashion similar to the Himba of Namibia.

vladimir nardinTraditional Samburu girl, Kenya by vladimir nardin

What sets the Samburu apart, however, is their gerontocracy. A gerontocracy is a social structure that is governed strictly by the elders who make all the decisions.

The leaders are the oldest members of the society and they have the final say in all matters as well as possessing the power to curse younger members of the tribe.

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